There is an intended paradox between the title and the subtitle of the book. Volf wants to put an end to one kind of memory and suggest the practice of another, and the operative work is “rightly.” The question is not whether to remember but how. One does of course forget things but not things that leave an indelible mark upon one’s body or psyche or soul. One cannot not remember them, but how must they be remembered?
The book was sparked by an event in the author’s life in 1984 when as a conscript in the army of the then-communist Yugoslavia, he was considered a security threat simply because he was a son of a pastor, had studied theology abroad, and had an American wife. He was spied on by his comrades and was subjected to interrogations, though not physical torture, especially by a captain, a certain G. The question that kept haunting Volf after he was freed was how he should remember this abuse, especially Captain G. himself, not with hatred and a desire for vengeance, but out of fidelity to Jesus and his God who command us to forgive and love our enemies. The topic of the book then is: “the memory of wrongdoing suffered by a person who desires neither to hate nor to disregard but to love the wrongdoer” (9). Note that the required task is not simply to forgive the victimizer but to love him or her.
The problem then becomes: Once remembering of the injury is rooted in the decision to forgive and love the injurer, how to remember the wrongdoing rightly? For Volf, remembering the wrongdoing rightly involves remembering it and its implications with regard to three realities: the injured, the community out of which the injury arose and to which it may be applied, and the perpetrator himself or herself.
Volf’s structures his argument along three basic questions that make up the three parts of his book: what is involved in remembering past wrongs, how should we remember, and how long should we remember? With regard to the first question, Volf reminds us that memory of wrongs suffered is a Janus-faced organ: as a “shield,” it can help form our identity, bring about healing, produce justice by acknowledging the reality of wrongs, link us with other victims, and protect victims from further violence. Sadly, as a “sword,” it can also wound, breed indifference, reinforce false self-perceptions, and re-injure.
This leads to the question of how we as Christians should remember? Beside remembering truthfully, we must also remember so as to heal. We can do the latter only by integrating the memories of our wounds within the larger story of God’s redemption, particularly in the stories of the Exodus and the Passion. In this way, Volf argues, we remember not simply as individuals but also as members of a community which can teach us to remember rightly, that is, “remembering that is truthful and just, that heals individuals without injuring others, that allows the past to motivate a just struggle for justice and the grace-filled work of reconciliation” (128).
But how long should we remember? With the help of Freud, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard, Vold argues for the possibility of a healthy forgetting or non-remembering. He goes further in asserting that “memories of suffered wrongs will not come to the minds of the citizens of the world to come, for in it they will perfectly enjoy God and one another in God” (177). Note the important point Volf is making: In heaven, “we will not forget so as to be able to rejoice; we will rejoice and therefore let those memories slip out of our minds” (214). Thus the “end” of memory of which the book speaks is both its termination (since we should not remember forever) and its goal or telos, that is, “the formation of the communion of love between all people, including victims and perpetrators” (232).
Together with its two predecessors, Exclusion and Embrace (1996) and Free of Charge (2005), The End of Memory is an eloquent and compelling meditation on the power of God’s love, as demonstrated in the life and ministry of Jesus, to heal all wrongs and to finally consign them to nothingness, so that we can remember the unjust sufferings rightly, be healed, and become agents of justice and peace. Such a message is all the more timely in the post- 9/11 era when we, especially Americans, are sorely tempted by and have already succumbed to, the temptation of the myth of violence and revenge.